Is There a God? (Richard Swinburne)

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Richard Swinburne doesn’t so much argue for the existence of God.  Rather, he posits God as the only viable cause for the universe. The intellectual rigor in this book is top-notch.  (There is a reason the New Atheists do not go after Swinburne). I will disagree with some of his conclusions at the end, but this is a useful text that is worth your time.


Swinburne outlines the doctrine of God in its classical terms, though he will balk on issues like eternalism and foreknowledge.  If we say that God is a person/personal being/One God in Three Persons, then we need to have some idea of what a person is. A person is “an individual with basic powers (to act intentionally), purposes, and beliefs” (Swinburne 4).  

Swinburne begins well by noting that God is an omnipotent, omniscient, and free person (6).  Further, God can’t do the impossible. So far so good. Unfortunately, Swinburne says it is impossible to know what a free creature will do tomorrow (7).  Omniscience for Swinburne simply means that God knows everything which is logically possible to know. We’ll come back to this claim.

He also rejects divine eternalism.  God, for Swinburne, is everlasting but not timeless. He does not simultaneously cause the events of 587 B.C. and 1995 A.D., since that would interfere with the future free actions of his creatures.  Rather, God exists in each moment of time. There is an obvious problem: Is God limited by time? Does God exist outside of time in any way?

The rest of the chapter on God is fairly good, especially his defense of divine essentialism (i.e., God has all of his essential properties necessarily).

How We explain things

Swinburne argues that the best explanation for an event is:

(1) It leads us to expect many and varied events which we observe.

(2) What is proposed is simple.

(3) It fits well with background knowledge (but only when background knowledge is available).

(4) We would not otherwise expect to find these events.

With these criteria, Swinburne argues that only God understood in the classical sense can make sense of the universe.  Materialism cannot, since it can’t explain abstract objects, mental states, etc. A finite god cannot, since it would need to be explained by something else (hence violating (2) above).  

The World and its Order

While he gives an unfortunate defense of Darwin, Swinburne does raise some problems for Hawking and Dawkins.  If time is really cyclical, and if, ex hypothesi, we could leave 1995 and eventually come back to 1994, then the following bizarre results entail:

* My acting can be the cause of my not acting (64ff).

How the Existence of God Explains the Existence of Humans

Good defense of substance dualism. Substances have properties and particular relations to other substances. A mental event, as opposed to a material object, is that which the subject has privileged access (72).


His argument for limited omnipotence comes at a high cost.  One response to it is that even on Arminian grounds, models like Middle Knowledge at least attempt to preserve God’s knowledge of future free actions.  Swinburne makes no such attempt.

But there is an even easier response.  The Bible makes numerous predictions about the future free decisions of moral agents.  Did Mary and Joseph have human freedom? Yes. Did Mary freely choose to remain a virgin before Jesus was born?  Yes. Could it have been otherwise? It’s hard to imagine that it could have been. And that’s only one of many.

Richard Swinburne on the Soul

Swinburne, Richard.  Evolution of the Soul.  Oxford.


person: anyone who has the facets of consciousness which men possess, whether human or not (Swinburne 4).

substance: a component of the world which interacts causally with other components (5). They have properties (whether monadic, relating to themselves, or polyadic, relating to others).

event: states of substances.  They are tokens, particular occurrences.

properties: universals that are instantiated in many different substances in many different occasions.  Properties can be either mental or physical. Physical properties are publically accessible. There is no privileged access to them (6). 

mental properties: only the subject has privileged access to them.  Someone can look at me and see a cut and deduce that I am cut, but not necessarily that I am feeling pain. Or, they can’t know what I think about the pain.  

mental events: events which involve  instantiation of mental properties (John was in pain yesterday).  

Different Views on the Mind-Body Problem

  1. Hard Materialism; mind-brain identity theory.  
  2. Soft Materialism: property dualism.  Mental properties are different from physical properties.  
  3. Soft dualism: distinct from Plato and Descartes.  Makes no assumption on soul’s structure or immortality (10).  


A thought is not the same thing as a belief.  I can have a belief without being conscious of having a belief.  Not so with thoughts (63).


criterion of belief:  Have a lively (as opposed to faint) idea of it (Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, 1.3.7).  It seems Hume confuses “belief” and “thought.” I can have a belief without being aware of it.

To believe p s to believe p is more probable (greater than ½ ) than ~p.

Summary of the Five States

These five states interact with brain-events but are not reducible to brain events.

Structure of the Soul

If we say the person can continue if the body is destroyed, we mean it is logically possible (146). 

basic argument: knowledge of what happens to bodies and their parts will not necessarily give you knowledge of the persons within them (147).   Cf., B. Williams, “Mad Surgeon Story.” Further, a man’s mental properties are not necessarily the same as his physical properties (155). At least, we have no reason for thinking so and those who hold to materialism have far more to prove.  

sub-argument: these claims for the soul should be verifiable.  Continuity of brain and apparent memory do not constitute personal identity, but they can provide evidence for it (155).  

The Evidence for Personal Identity

memory.  Fallible but reliable.  A source of belief-justification, if not the strongest form.

Origin and Life of the Soul

problem: can the soul function when it is not having conscious episodes (sleep, etc)? Swinburne makes the distinction that the soul cannot “function” without a properly functioning brain, but it can exist without the brain (176).   

I am not so sure Swinburne’s evolutionary narrative accounts for morality. He asserts with Darwin that those who evolved have well-marked social instincts which would eventually acquire morality (224).  The only evidence he offers is that animals demonstrate altruism towards their kin (except for those animals who eat their young and eat their mates, no doubt). The universality of morality, therefore, can be attributed to some “core principles” (226).

I am not persuaded and neither was T. H. Huxley.  Swinburne admits with Huxley that the “practice of what is ethically best…is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic system” (quoted in Swinburne, 227).  

His argument for free will is along the lines that Quantum Mechanics has ruled out a universal physical determinism, which would be our wills aren’t determined by our brain-states.  So far, so good. The rest of the chapter consisted of mathematical formulas before which even the mightiest reader would quail.

The Structure of the Soul

Agents have belief-desire sets.  Per Quine, our beliefs “form a net which impinges on experience only at its edges” (see Quine, From a Logical Point of View, 42-46).  Our beliefs have to “mesh” with other beliefs (though there can be inconsistencies that aren’t obvious).  Swinburne takes Quine’s correct thesis and adds to it: desires interact with our belief network (Swinburne 263-264).  

Desires require beliefs.  If a man desire heroin and knows the effects of heroin, and you inject him with heroin, then as the effects wear off he will desire more heroin.  If you inject a sleeping man with heroin, as the effects wear off he will feel uneasy but won’t desire heroin (not knowing what to desire).

 There are three ways to change desires: bodily change, a belief change, and a change of other desires (270-271).  Swinburne gives an extended and fascinating account of how our beliefs and desires function. The upshot of this is our beliefs can’t always be “changed” by neural procedures.  If one did succeed in “switching” beliefs, my other beliefs in the “web,” themselves not changed, would “conspire to restore” that former belief which gave unity (281). Granted, this isn’t a powerful stand-alone argument for the existence of the soul, but it is a difficulty for materialist views.  

The person tempted to suicide might go to counseling.  This reveals conflicted desires within his psyche. He is exhibiting a desire not to have a desire to commit suicide.  

an argument against determinism: insofar as our beliefs which require reasons for their justification do not have acceptance of those reasons among their causes, they are unjusified (290). 


Super-ego (conscience)

Ego: person which performs public actions

Id: system of conative impulses).  These impules exist side by side with each other without neutralizing each other.  

Similarly, the soul has a structure of internconnected beliefs and desires which are more or less integrated with each other (295).  

Future of the soul: 

Can the brain be reactivated? 

Will the soul function without the brain’s functioning?  Three arguments

  1. parapsychology.  Swinburne rejects mediums talking with the dead and opts for the clairvoyance argument.  He gives more weight to near-death experiences (NDE) since those can be verified. However, he rejects them because in most cases there is no evidence the brain stopped functioning even though the heart did.  (???)
  2. natural survival.  

HIs conclusion: the soul cannot survive the body simply on its own powers.  I suppose that’s true, but Swinburne comes dangerously close to (if not actually affirming) “soul sleep.”

Excellent discussions on supervenience.




*Swinburne offers lots of penetrating suggestions on the mind-body problem and how hard materialism really can’t account for it.  

*Excellent, if incomplete section on beliefs and belief-formation.